When the Carolina Hurricanes acquired Jiri Tlusty
from the Toronto Maple Leafs in Dec. 2009, president and general manager Jim Rutherford projected Tlusty as a top-six forward.
Just over three years later, Tlusty has fulfilled that projection.
“It’s definitely my best season, and it’s something I always thought I could do,” he said. “I wish the team would make the playoffs, because that would be the best season.”
“Every individual or athlete has different ways of getting where they want to get to,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “[Tlusty] ran into some injury problems and maybe jumped into the NHL a bit too early. But, everything has come together for him right now. He’s a real professional. He keeps his mouth quiet. Whatever you ask of him, he does it. He works hard, he’s a smart player and he’s got all the skill.”
A staple on the first line with Eric Staal
, Tlusty has posted career numbers in 74 games this season. With 36 points (17g, 19a), he ranks fourth in scoring on the team and has better than doubled his previous career high of 16 points. With five games remaining on the schedule, it’s not out of the question for him to achieve the 20-goal or 40-point mark. If he were to score at the pace he has in his last 22 games (18 points), he would record approximately 67 points in a full 82-game season.
This type of offensive production is what scouts saw when Toronto drafted him 13th overall in 2006. It’s what Carolina’s scouts saw when they targeted him in the same draft, only to keep track of him in the years to follow. Now in his fifth National Hockey League season, Tlusty still is just 24 years old.
Perhaps the determining factor in his success this season? Staying healthy, which he's done for all but three games.
“This year, I feel healthy and my body works with me. That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “When your body works with you, you just enjoy every moment out there. It’s amazing just to go out there and play with nothing hurting or nothing bothering you.
“I feel good right now,” he said, before knocking on the wood of his locker stall. “I hope to stay healthy and have a big summer of training.”
Coming into training camp with a full bill of health has been a struggle for the Slany, Czech Republic native. Because of off-season knee surgery, Tlusty missed a large chunk of training camp last season and was hesitant and admittedly worried about his knee in his first games back. A few months later in December, he suffered a shoulder injury, causing him to be sidelined for 16 games.
“It’s so tough when you’re on your own,” he said. “In your head, you just ask yourself, ‘Why? Why do you get hurt?’ When you’re healthy, you just focus on hockey.”
When it comes to staying healthy, however, sometimes it just can’t be helped.
“You need to be in good condition, but sometimes it’s just unlucky,” he said of injuries.
A full summer’s worth of training helped Tlusty, who said he loves to run, feel much stronger coming into to training camp this season. In the first month of regular season play, he was seeing double-digit ice time and recorded six points in 12 games, already half of his point total from 2010-11. A 10-game pointless streak followed, though, and his ice time dipped. Muller put him on the first line alongside Staal, and in February, he rattled off a nine-game point streak, coinciding with Staal’s 12-game point streak. That line was clicking, and that chemistry remained, even with injuries forcing a shuffle on the opposite wing.
“Chemistry is big. He’s shown that he can play with Staalsy,” Muller said. “He’s good and creative with the puck, and he’s got the skill to play at that level. But he’s also really responsible without it, and I think that’s really important for him to continue playing in the top six.”
Signed to a one-year deal last summer, Tlusty is a restricted free agent at the conclusion of this season. For his part, Tlusty said he doesn’t think about the contract. According to Muller, Tlusty fits into the team’s plans moving forward.
“You don’t know what kind of personnel will change over the summer, but do I feel comfortable with him staying [in the top six]? I definitely do,” he said.
A 25-goal, 60-plus-point producer at the American Hockey League level, Tlusty is beginning to see those numbers translate at this level. It might have taken a few years – and a few untimely injuries – but it just confirms the confidence Tlusty had in himself since the beginning.
“I think I can be a top six player,” he said. “Now it’s just trying to prove to everybody that I can do it.”